Special Field Proposal and Examination: New Guidelines

The New Special Field Proposal and Examination are mandatory for all incoming PhD students (beginning September 2021) and optional for continuing students entering the second year of registration (P2) in 2021-2022. Students who are or were in their third or subsequent years of registration in 2021-2022 must follow the Old Guidelines for the Special Field Exam.

What is the NEW Special Field Examination and when does it take effect?

The NEW Special Field Examination replaces the previous Special Field Examination AND the Dissertation Proposal with a single examination which is to be passed in the third year of registration (P3).

The Special Field Examination process starts in the Spring of the second year and includes the preparation and submission of three documents –a Reading List, a Field Paper, and a Syllabus, as described below– plus a two-hour oral exam which takes place no later than April 30th of the third year of registration (P3). The CMS language requirements for Level-Two Latin, French, and German must be met before the Special Field Examination may be taken. The Reading List, Field Paper, and Syllabus, however, may be submitted before these requirements have been satisfied.

Graded on a Pass/Fail basis, the Special Field Examination certifies the student’s expertise in a chosen research topic and demonstrates their broader academic field of competence, including related teaching skills. It provides a foundation for the dissertation research, but it is not synonymous with that research.

This examination, following the completion of coursework and satisfaction of all language requirements, is the final requirement for achieving candidacy.

How is the Special Field Examination articulated?

The Special Field Examination is articulated in four main steps, as follows:

  1. Reading List

    By June 30th of the second year of registration, students should submit to their Advisory Committee a Reading List for their chosen research topic, broadly conceived.

    The Reading List must be introduced by a justification (preferably one page, maximum of three) of the principles guiding the bibliographical selection, followed by the list of courses taken by the student. The Reading List must contain between 150 (min.) and 250 (max.) items, including both Primary and Secondary Sources. For additional information, refer to the Editorial Guidelines below.

    The Advisory Committee approves or suggests modifications to the candidate within a month of submission.

  2. Field Paper (Draft)

    By January 15th of the third year of registration, students should submit to both their Advisory Committee and the CMS Executive Committee a Field Paper (Draft) based on the Reading List.

    The Field Paper consists of either:
    (A) a developed research paper covering a specific part of the future dissertation (e.g., equivalent to the draft of one chapter), or
    (B) a description of the dissertation project, detailing the sources, state of the literature, problems, methodology, and aims of each chapter (e.g., equivalent to the current Dissertation Proposal and a draft of the envisioned Introduction to the dissertation).

    In either case, the expected length is 8,000-12,000 words including footnotes.

    The Field Paper (Draft) is introduced by a Cover Page, and followed by the Reading list, revised according to the inputs received in step 1, and the List of Courses taken by the student.

    The Advisory Committee and CMS Executive Committee approve or suggest modifications to the candidate within a month of submission.

  3. Field Paper (Final Version) and Syllabus

    By March 31st of the third year of registration, students should submit to their Advisory Committee the final version of their Field Paper. This is a revised version of the Draft, reflecting responses received from the Advisory and CMS Executive Committees.

    Students should submit an undergraduate course Syllabus thematically related to the research area covered by the Reading List along with the revised Field Paper. In designing their syllabi, students will follow the samples provided by the members of the Advisory Committee.

    These documents will be discussed at the Examination.

  4. Oral Examination

    By April 30th of the third year of registration, students must organize a two-hour meeting with their Advisory Committee. The examination is centered on the Field Paper and the Syllabus. This is a Pass/Fail examination. After the examination, students will submit the Oral Examination form, as filled and approved by all the members of their Advisory Committee, together any relevant documents, to the Graduate Administrator.

… to recap:


By when

To/with whom


Other info

Forms and templates

Reading List


June 30 of the 2nd year of registration

Advisory Committee

One-page justification + Bibliography (including Primary and Secondary Sources) of 150-250 items + List of Courses taken.

Approval/Requests for modifications within a month from submission.


Field Paper (Draft)

January 15 of the 3rd year of registration

Advisory Committee + CMS Executive Committee

Research Paper OR Dissertation Project, of 8,000-12,000 words (incl. footnotes) + Cover page + Revised Reading List + List of Courses taken.

Approval/Requests for modifications within a month from submission.

Cover page

Field Paper (Final Version) and Syllabus

March 31 of the third year of registration

Advisory Committee

Revised version of the Field Paper + Syllabus based on the Reading List.

See below.

Templates of syllabi are provided by Adv. Ctee.

Oral Examination

April 30 of the third year of registration

Advisory Committee

Two-hour meeting (organized by the student) to present and evaluate the Field Paper and the Syllabus.

New Special Field Examination form to be filled, approved and submitted to the Grad. Administrator.

Oral Examination form


How do the program’s Major Area and Minor Area requirements relate to the Special Field Examination?

The Major and Minor Area requirements are distinct from the Special Field Examination and refer to the coursework. For other information about areas, see the section Coursework. At the same time, interdisciplinarity remains a core value of the CMS Special Field Examinations: the Reading List and Field Paper are expected to build constructively on two or more areas of expertise achieved by students.

How does the Special Field Examination relate to the Dissertation?

By December 31st of the second year of registration, students should have defined a provisional dissertation topic or area of research and have identified a provisional Supervisor and two faculty members of their Advisory Committee (as approved by the PhD Coordinator) to assist with preparation of the Special Field Proposal.

Depending on each student’s starting point and individual background, the Reading List, Field Paper and Special Field Examination might either: A) focus on a specific part of their future dissertation project (e.g., research paper on a case study, which will likely constitute a chapter of the dissertation), or B) draft a comprehensive plan of the whole dissertation and its subparts (e.g., historiographical overview and outline of the dissertation, etc., which will likely constitute the introduction of the dissertation). The choice between these two options and formats must be taken by the student in consultation with the Supervisor and the Advisory Committee.

Please note that although a dissertation proposal (option B) is no longer required as part of the examination process for students who choose the research paper (option A), Advisory Committees are allowed to ask for a provisional table of contents for purposes of evaluating how the research paper will fit in the dissertation to come.

Whichever the selected option, the New Special Field Examination is intended to facilitate the transition from coursework to the writing of the dissertation, and to enable students to complete the third year with a clear sense of the direction of their dissertation. Throughout this process, students will also write a significant portion of their dissertation under close supervision of the Advisory Committee and the CMS Executive Committee, and this experience will serve as a model for the writing of the remaining parts.

In addition, students will produce a Syllabus related to their research field which they can later use when applying for teaching positions, etc. This last requirement specifically responds not only to student needs for better guidance towards the writing of their dissertations, but also to the development of competitive teaching portfolios.

The Special Field Examination Committee and Collegial Monitoring

The Special Field Examination Committee is constituted by the Advisory Committee declared by the student as of December 31st of the second year of dissertation. Good Special Field proposals do not spring forth fully formed from one individual alone. It is critical that students should develop the habit of discussing their ideas with their Supervisor and Advisory Committee members as soon as possible.

The New Special Field Examination is designed to facilitate the supervisorial process by dividing the work on the Proposal into the three steps described above (Reading List, Field Paper, Syllabus), each of which is monitored directly by the Advisory Committee and indirectly by the CMS Executive Committee.

Since this is a collegial process, students should be prepared to encounter differences of opinion among committee members regarding sources, the contours of their projects, and the ways in which the various parts interlock. This is normal. In the rare event that disagreements are trenchant, the opinions of the supervisors should prevail. If students find that disagreements are unpleasant, threatening, or otherwise hampering their progress, they should consult with the PhD Coordinator or another member of the CMS Executive Committee. Students are also warmly encouraged to discuss their interests and progress with other faculty members and with their peers, and to seek guidance from the PhD Coordinator concerning the CMS Guidelines and general expectations.

Editorial Guidelines for the Reading List and the Field Paper

The Reading List must be prefaced by a justification (preferably one page, maximum three) of the principles guiding the bibliographical selection, followed by the list of courses taken by the student. The Reading List must contain between 150 (min.) and 250 (max.) items, including both Primary and Secondary Sources.

Given the interdisciplinary emphasis of CMS and its affiliated programs, it is inevitable that Reading Lists should differ widely from student to student. Primary Sources predominate in some of them, Secondary in others. Solid foundations in both are required, although the relative weight assigned to each varies from case to case. As regards the scholarship itself, an international and multilingual breadth is essential, and the Reading List should capture items in all of the relevant languages, modern, medieval, or ancient.

Citation styles also vary from discipline to discipline. In their coursework, students generally sort out the citation style most appropriate for their specific research field; in the case of uncertainty, they should consult their Supervisor(s). No matter what citation style is finally adopted, consistency must be respected.

The Field Paper must be submitted with the cover page provided by CMS and must have a reasonably succinct title that makes clear the topic(s) of medieval studies concerned and the student’s general field of research. A subtitle may be added to clarify the scope of the Field Paper.

The Field Paper should be in essay form and consist of 8,000-12,000 words, including footnotes.

Footnotes play an important role for the depth and nuance they add. Their levels of detail and analysis will vary according to the type of project, but some will inevitably reveal themselves as necessary to it.

As in other pieces of scholarly writing, students should include translations of passages originally in languages other than English. Whether the original language is quoted in the body of the Research Paper with the translation in a footnote, or vice versa, is a matter of individual preference to be discussed with your Supervisor(s) if you are unsure how best to proceed.

If the Field Paper involves newly edited work or materials unavailable in print, the latter should be relegated to Appendices, which form part of the calculated length expectations.

If the Field Paper assesses visual evidence, captions should be included for each image and a separate List of Illustrations provided. The List of Illustrations must identify the image and specify its precise source. For example:

  • Fig. 2: Easter Chants in St. Gall notation, British Library Add. MS 32247, f. 30v, from Nicolas Bell, Music in Medieval Manuscripts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), p. 16.
  • Fig. 3: Anglo-Saxon millefiori stud from the Staffordshire Hoard, news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8272370.stm (accessed June 10, 2011).

Editing is extremely important. A sloppy Field Paper may provoke unnecessary irritation, thereby affecting the attention level and feedback of readers.

Feedback and Revision process

Within a month of the submission of the Reading List and of the Field Paper, students will receive feedback from either the Advisory Committee (Reading List) or the Advisory Committee and CMS Executive Committee (Field Paper, incl. the Reading List).

The Committees and readers provide feedback on different aspects of the material submitted. Whereas the Advisory Committee focuses on the specific research quality of these documents, the CMS Executive Committee serves as a proxy for an ideal audience of medievalists who are not specialized in the topic, and endeavours to ensure that shared expectations and standards have been met.

Both Committees will typically share requests for modifications, corrections, clarification, further bibliographical input, or in rare cases for substantial revisions. When revising the Reading List and Field Paper, students are expected to address all the observations raised in the feedback they have received. This does not mean that all requests must be answered precisely as formulated, but that students should take them into account and be prepared to explain their responses and revisions. If requests for substantial revisions are disregarded, students should justify their reasoning in a separate document.

Format of the Oral Examination

Students are responsible for setting the date of their Special Field Examination in consultation with their Supervisor and Advisory Committee by April 30th of the third year of registration, and for communicating that date to PhD Coordinator and Graduate Administrator.

The Special Field Examination is an oral examination normally scheduled for no more than two hours. Students are offered the opportunity to speak first, to clarify, correct, or qualify points articulated in the Field Papers. Although their opening remarks provide a basis for the questions and discussion, the examination is not restricted to material presented in the Field Paper. Individual examiners typically haver turns of ca. 20 minutes each. Although some examinations may evolve into free-flowing conversations, each examiner nevertheless has the right to his or her say on the candidate’s overall performance.

During the examination, committee members evaluate the extent to which students have mastered and analyzed the primary and secondary materials. The student’s grasp of wide-ranging themes is important, as is their ability to focus on and analyze more detailed points of investigation. The problems addressed in the feedback and the challenges encountered during the revision of the Field Paper might be also discussed in the Oral Examination.

The Special Field examination is assessed on a Pass/Fail basis, there are no letter grades.

After the meeting, students will submit to the Graduate Administrator the New Special Field Oral Examination form, completed and approved by all members of the Advisory Committee, together with the final version of any relevant documents as matters of record.

What if a student fails the Special Field Examination?

The Advisory Committee, in consultation with the CMS Executive Committee, has the discretion to determine whether or not a student may retake the Special Field Examination in the event of failure. One retake only is permitted, and it must take place within two months of the initial exam and no later than August 31st of the third year of registration. Students who fail the Special Field Examination before the beginning of Year 4 will be recommended for termination of registration in SGS.